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Reason Is Better than Prayer (for Government)

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Every year on the first Thursday of May a peculiar thing happens: the president and government officials across the nation ask us to pray. Not only do they ask us to pray, they inform us of the value of prayer and how, according to President Obama's 2012 National Day of Prayer Proclamation, prayer has "always been a part of the American story, and today countless Americans rely on prayer for comfort, direction, and strength." Of course, it's not exactly "countless" since we can count millions of Americans that don't believe in the efficacy of prayer.

This is a particular problem for nonreligious Americans who are civically minded. Just like our religious family and friends, we want to participate in community gatherings and political events and be an accepted contributor to the diverse American tapestry. So we understandably take issue with efforts to say that the American way is the way that excludes us, especially when those efforts are driven by officials we helped elect.

And it's not just the excluded nonreligious 20 percent of the country who are bothered by the president asking for nationwide prayer. There are also many people of faith that object to government's intrusion in their private religious practices. After all, we didn't elect our representatives to give us advice on how and when to pray, and some particularly devout people believe that reserving prayer for a single day demeans its importance.

As if it weren't bad enough just as a concept, the National Day of Prayer's execution makes it even worse. This national religious "observance" has been around since the 1950s during the McCarthy Era when we took pains to distinguish ourselves from atheist communist Russia, when Congress and President Truman mandated that it occur every year. It was only relatively recently that it became such a focal point, and credit for that goes to George W. Bush, Shirley Dobson and the National Day of Prayer Taskforce who steered the observance in a decidedly conservative direction that encourages mixing church and state. During Bush's reign, there were elaborate prayer breakfasts and ceremonies where religious values were praised.

This year's exclusion mirrors a recent rejection, this time from the memorial service held for victims of the Boston Marathon attacks. The Humanist Community at Harvard University attempted to participate in the recent interfaith memorial for the victims, only to be refused by the organizers. What's sad about this is not just that these humanists knew victims of the terrifying attack; rather, the real tragedy is the message from the Boston community and members of local, state, and national governments that nonreligious Bostonians aren't welcome to participate in and help lead the community's grieving process. Even though the service was ostensibly meant to include all members of the community by being an interfaith service, nonreligious Americans were excluded simply because they lacked a belief in god.

The statement sent from exclusionary events like this service and the National Day of Prayer is that government has yet to acknowledge the full citizenship of one of their largest constituent groups. That's why humanists around the country will be celebrating the more universal National Day of Reason on the same day as the National Day of Prayer. While each local humanist and atheist group is encouraged to come up with their own events, one of the main points of the day is to do something that makes a positive difference in people's lives. That's why during government-sponsored prayer events, nonreligious and secular Americans will invite all to participate in community events like ReasonFest, which will help raise funds for charity, and Gift For Life, a blood donation drive in New York City.

Elected officials like Nebraska Governor David Heinemann, Washington, DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, and Charlotte Mayor and current nominee for Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx have all issued statements recognizing the National Day of Reason and calling upon Americans to utilize reason and critical thinking when solving today's problems. U.S. Representative Mike Honda recently submitted a statement to the Congressional Record honoring the day and reaffirming the "constitutional separation of religion and government."

Non-praying Americans are just like praying Americans -- they want their elected officials to understand and respect them. While some government officials like Rep. Honda are doing their best to extend an olive branch, too many elected leaders still willfully marginalize almost a fifth of our country's population by participating in these sectarian religious services. We should remind them that everyone should have a seat at the table and a place within the community.